Register Sunday | May 31 | 2020

The More You Know

Before you “ask your doctor,” consult this helpful guide to drug-ad code

If you’ve ever watched television in the United States, you know that ads for prescription medication are hilariously vague. This is because law dictates that if you tell viewers what the medicine cures, you must also list all of its side effects. This used to be done very quickly at the end of an ad by a fast-talking micro-machine man: “may cause stroke-heart-attack-high-blood-pressure-galloping-diarrhea-whooping-cough-scalp-secretions-pregnancy-and-death.” The latest trend, however, is to circumvent the law by being tactfully imprecise. Such ads show some people doing some stuff, mention something about “relief” and advise consumers to ask their doctors if the mystery drug is right for them.

Makes sense—we could all use a little relief, right? Isn’t that worth a trip to the doctor? Some people don’t think so. Watchdog agencies are upset about this marketing tactic, particularly in light of the recent Vioxx debacle. In an effort to placate these whiners, pharmaceutical companies have voluntarily drafted their own more stringent guidelines to follow. But the director of the Consumer Union’s prescription-drug reform effort—the amusingly named Rob Schneider—isn’t buying it. He and other critics feel that this is just the pharmaceutical industry’s way of avoiding true advertorial regulation.

Well, I say for shame Mr. Schneider! The problem isn’t that the pharmaceutical industry is run by money-grubbing sleazebags who knowingly endanger the lives of consumers and drive healthcare costs up nation-wide by pushing people to request unnecessary drugs from their doctors. No, the problem is that these poor pharma-zillionaires have to talk in code just get around the strictures imposed by you and your heavies! We all know that it’s simply un-American to inconvenience rich people. Frankly, I think you and your Consumer’s Union cronies simply aren’t trying hard enough to understand what these commercials are all about.

But fret not, consumers—there are things you can do to help! You must simply take the time to understand the coded messages you’re receiving. That way you know which medicines to ask your doctor about. Here are some key clues to look out for while watching drug commercials:

AGE. Are there old people in it? The viewing public doesn’t like to look at old people—they remind us that someday we’ll all become old and most likely die. This is usually a bad marketing strategy ... usually. If there are old people in the ad, the drug probably treats an old person disease: arthritis, type II diabetes, something to do with prostates. If the commercial stars all middle-aged people, especially if they’re sitting on examining tables, this usually means the medication targets something serious: heart attack, stroke, cholesterol. There are very few ads with all young people in them, because it’s unpleasant to think about sick children.

GENDER. Are there chicks in it at all? Are there only chicks? Obviously, a female-only commercial indicates one of the unspeakable woman problems: periods maybe, or a cervix thing. Vaginal dryness, maybe? It’ll depend on whether it’s only old ladies or all kinds of ladies. Birth-control ads are easy—all the actresses look like nice girls you wouldn’t want to see knocked up. For some reason, the only lady-parts medication that is always talked frankly about is yeast-infection medicine. I don’t know why this is, but you never get vague allusions to “freshness” and “comfort” in your yeast-infection commercials—perhaps it’s because any visual metaphor to yeast-infection symptoms would be more disgusting than just describing it outright.

An all-male ad probably points to something prostate-y, like a heart-attack medicine or impotence drugs. Sometimes impotence drug ads have women in them too, to remind men what they’re going to do with those boners once they get them. Stiffy drug commercials actually come in two major categories: (1) “totally active and not at all emasculated by the fact that you can’t get wood” and (2) “cuddling is important.” Category 1 may include such things as playing sports, riding motorcycles, yachting or punching stuff. Category 2 ads always feature those improbable older women who look like Cameron Diaz with a stylish gray wig slapped on. An important thing to watch for in both types is risqué symbolism. Shot of a balloon inflating? A jackhammer? A ripe banana passing slowly through the hole in a bagel, with a quick cut to a robust middle-aged couple holding hands? You’re in Impotence Town, my friend.

ACTION DEPICTED. An important point to keep in mind is that most drug ads show what it’s supposed to be like after you take the drug—it’ll portray people doing the stuff their ailment prevents them from doing in the first place. If a lady is running in a field of flowers and dogs, breathing easily, then it’s an allergy medication. If an older woman is heaving her grandkids around, you’re probably talking arthritis. Folks eating greasy foods without grabbing their chests? Heartburn.

Think you got it? Pretty easy, right? Well, let’s try a few:

The Drug: Cialis
The Ad: A shoeless man sits on a couch perched on a narrow dock, the lake visible behind. A voice-over notes that he went to his doctor and asked about Cialis. A similarly barefoot woman appears on the couch next to him. Smiling, he puts his arm around her. The voice-over points out that getting Cialis was exactly what the woman wanted him to do. We are advised to ask our doctors about Cialis.
The Guess: Well, I think we all know what Cialis does, but this particular ad is an interesting twist on the standard cuddly impotence ad. The shoelessness and the lake add subtle, metaphorical elements to an otherwise straightforward approach. Do their bare feet denote intimacy? A feeling of unpreparedness? Is the couch in the middle of a lake supposed to illustrate the man’s feelings of isolation? His sense of being a “fish out of water”? Perhaps the liquid is supposed to evoke the wetness of physical intimacy. This commercial works on many levels.
The Answer: Impotence. This one was a gimme. Let’s try something more challenging.

The Drug: Zocor.
The Ad: An old man casts a fishing line, a middle-aged woman does yoga, a guy stirs some kind of barbecue sauce, and an elderly woman in a swim cap smiles. The voice-over says, “It is important to continue taking Zocor as directed by your doctor. Get more information at”
The Guess: Let’s see, you’ve got mostly elderly or middle-aged people doing active stuff. This one’s kind of a toughie, I’ll admit. My first thought was arthritis, because that lady couldn’t do yoga if she had arthritis. But some of the actors looked too young for arthritis, so I went with heart disease.
The Answer: Turns out it’s a cholesterol medication for people with type II diabetes. Ooooh, right. That guy fishing definitely looked kind of diabetic. Live and learn.

The Drug: Zelnorm
The Ad: Funky, Seinfeldian bass music. Slow pan across smiling faces of men and women aged thirty to fifty-five. As the camera pans, they look at each other, smiling. Camera pulls back to show fifteen or so of these people in a spare, modern apartment, sitting on a couch or standing on a landing above it. The voice-over says, “Ask your doctor if Zelnorm is right for you. Or for more information, visit”
The Guess: More information? How could there possibly be more information? You’ve got happy people of both genders sitting in an apartment, clearly Zelnorm is uh, well—an anti-depressant? It makes you feel zelnormal? Or maybe another cholesterol thing? Everyone has high cholesterol these days. Nobody looked like they wanted to sleep together, so I’m ruling out anything penis-related. Crabs? Herpes? Cancer? I’m going with antidepressant.
The Answer:Constipation! Oh, of course! No wonder everyone was smiling knowingly—they all just took awesome craps. Important lesson: non-sexual smiles equal constipation.

Looks like we all still have a lot to learn. But folks, I think it’s clear that the system works: Pharmaceutical companies are fighting the good fight, getting vital non-information about boner-saving drugs to you, no matter the cost. I don’t think it’s asking too much to do a little advertising homework. It’s part of your duties as a good citizen, really. If you don’t believe me, ask your doctor.

Audrey Ference tries her darndest to keep up with what the kids into these days. Her column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Audrey Ference.